The Golfer and the Dentist

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Golf legend Arnold Palmer and Wilmington dentist Howdy Giles had a decades long friendship

“Howdy, what’s that on John’s pants?
Arnold Palmer, May 20, 1985

Arnold Palmer had just arrived at the Hercules Country Club with his friend Howdy Giles, and tournament co-chair Kevin Reilly and I rushed to greet them and help Palmer with his clubs.

As I lifted his clubs out of Howdy’s trunk, Palmer suddenly barked out, “Howdy, Howdy, what’s that thing on John’s pants?” I looked down and there it was – a “Golden Bear!” I had actually worn a pair of slacks with a Jack Nicklaus logo to greet the “King of Golf” – what was I thinking? As I began to stammer out an explanation, Palmer broke out laughing and told Howdy he needed to teach me how to dress.

The golf slacks episode was on day two of a 24-hour stretch when I found myself in the presence of the one and only Arnold Palmer.

Beginning with my first Arnie encounter as an autograph-seeking teenager in 1963, I would ultimately connect with the legendary golf champion, the man Wilmington sportswriter Brad Myers called “one of the most famous people in history,” on seven separate occasions. But this two-day experience was unlike any other – and it was only possible due to my friendship with Wilmington dentist Howdy Giles.

If you have ever met Dr. Howdy Giles you immediately recognize an unbridled enthusiasm for whatever he is doing, whether holding a dental drill, camera or a golf club in his hands.

In addition to his love of family, he is passionate about Blue Hen football, the Philadelphia Eagles and the game of golf. But Howdy’s connection is more than a game with friends, memberships in great golf clubs or even his years as an official with the United States Golf Association (USGA) – Howdy just happened to become Arnold Palmer’s dentist, photographer and one of his best friends.

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Arnold Palmer in Delaware at the Hercules Golf Club, May 20, 1985

With Arnie’s recent passing, the tributes have been rolling in from royalty, global leaders, professional athletes and most importantly from his millions of fans around the world. What has struck me the most about the tributes are that they all seem to focus on Arnie the man rather than the athlete who, for a stretch of nearly 10 years, was the dominate player in golf.

Listening to a commentator on the PGA satellite radio station this week I laughed to myself when I heard him say, “I’ll bet there are more photographs of people with Arnold Palmer on the walls of homes and offices around the country than any other famous person.” I expect that is true and would not doubt that Howdy Giles of Delaware took most of them.

Howdy is reputed to have taken hundreds of thousands of photos of the man they call the “King of Golf.” So many, that several years ago he published a photo book called “The King and I.” So many that one landed on the side panel of the famous Arizona ice tea and lemonade drink.

As Howdy mentions in his book, he could not believe his good fortune when Arnie took special notice of him and his wife Carolyn as they pursued their favorite pastime, enlisting with “Arnie’s Army” at various PGA tour events. At the 1971 Masters, Howdy and Carolyn were introduced to Arnold’s wife, Winnie and they walked the fairways together following the action. A friendship blossomed and when Arnie established the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, the Giles bought a condo there and joined the club.

Then in the late 70’s Arnold became one of Howdy’s dental patients and started regularly stopping in Wilmington for appointments.

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Delaware’s Dave Raymond as the Phillie Phanatic surprises Arnold Palmer, May 1985

To understand the Palmer – Giles relationship one only has to turn to the “Foreword” of the book written by the subject of all those photos. Here Arnold Palmer discusses some of the “one of a kind” people he has known in his life and states:

I’ve had hundreds of people tell me that somebody they know is my No. 1 fan, and I certainly appreciate that kind of support. But I’m afraid that none of them can make a case that would take that distinction away from Howdy.

Perhaps the most amazing element in the Arnold Palmer story is that years after his last PGA Tour victory he was still the most popular golfer on the Tour – then the senior tour began and the Army fired up all over again. And Arnie did not disappoint, winning 10 times on the senior tour including five major championships.

In 1985 I was serving on the committee for the annual Leukemia golf fundraiser, and the idea came up that maybe we could get Howdy to arrange for Arnie to appear at our event. Howdy loved the idea and worked with team Palmer to get us a great deal for his Wilmington appearance. We set our date for the Monday after the nearby Bell Atlantic Classic in Malvern, PA. Our deal with Arnie was that he would spend that Monday at the Hercules Country Club; he would conduct a golf clinic for the guests; pose for a photo with all 40 groups; and then play an 18 hole golf exhibition. It did not include attendance at the Sunday night gala before the golf.

One of the nice elements of the weekend was that being so close to Malvern, Arnie and his wife, Winnie decided to stay at the Giles home in north Wilmington. Our Sunday night dinner before the Leukemia event was held at Winterthur and was always a big hit with the out of town guests and celebrities. Although it was not in our contract, Howdy fully expected Arnie would join us for dinner, and there was great anticipation that he would appear. But as luck would have it Arnie finished second to a red hot Don January that Sunday, and by time he got back to Howdy’s home in Wilmington he was in no mood to put on a coat and tie and head out to a fancy dinner.

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Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn joins Palmer at Winterthur

My phone rang about 6 pm as my wife Sharon and I were ready to leave for Winterthur. “John, it’s Howdy. Arnie is trying to relax after a disappointing day – he hates to lose to Don January! He said he doesn’t want to go to the dinner – I don’t know what is going to happen but Winnie is working on it.”

I said, “Howdy, tell Arnie he has to come – Joe DiMaggio, Franco Harris and the Governor are sitting at his table and he can’t disappoint a Pittsburgh Steeler!”(DiMaggio, Franco Harris, Warren Spahn, and child star “Spanky” McFarland were regular guests at the annual event.) Howdy said to give them another 15 minutes and he would call back. Sharon and I watched the clock wondering if we should leave for Winterthur and suddenly the phone rang. “John, it’s Howdy – Arnie said he will come but he doesn’t want to speak.”

Off we went to Winterthur.

Surrounded by Hall of Famers and the beauty of Winterthur, the buzz at the dinner was still all about Arnie. People came and went from his table, getting his autograph on a program book or a photo taken by Howdy.

All seemed well when fellow committee member John DiEleuterio approached me to ask when Arnie would be speaking. I replied that Arnie had only agreed to come to the dinner if he didn’t have to speak. But John persuaded me that our sponsors would be deeply disappointed if they didn’t hear from Arnie.

So I reluctantly approached Arnie’s table to pose the question. “Arnie, would you mind making a few brief remarks?” Arnie shot a look over at Howdy, “Howdy, you told me I wouldn’t have to speak!” Lord knows what Howdy was about to say when Winnie Palmer reached over and touched Arnie on the arm and said, “Oh go on up there Arnie, everyone would like to hear from you.”As I recall, Arnie was brief but mentioned how excited he was to meet Joe DiMaggio and the others and thanked everyone for supporting the fight against leukemia. Thanks to Winnie, it was a perfect close to the evening.

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John and Sharon Riley and Arnie at Winterthur

When the news hit last week that Arnold Palmer had died, both my son Tim and daughter Carie called – their first comment was about how hard this was going to be for Dr. Giles. Ironically I was scheduled to join Howdy the next day for the annual University of Delaware alumni golf team benefit.

Later Sunday night I emailed my condolences to Howdy and Carolyn but did not mention our scheduled golf date, assuming he would be unlikely to even remember or too saddened to join us. To my surprise Howdy made it, and we had a great day reminiscing about times with Arnie. We also teamed with former golf team captain Ed Stegemeier and Delaware quarterback Tom Van Grofski to win our senior competition with a late Arnold Palmer charge!

All during the day one person after another came up to Howdy, not only to express condolences, but to thank him for arranging a meeting with Arnie or for taking their photo with the “King.” It suddenly struck me that due to Howdy Giles, a special window had been opened up to hundreds and possibly thousands of Delawareans and others around the country because Arnold Palmer saw something special in Howdy Giles. And the great thing about Howdy was that he wanted to share his good fortune with as many as he could.

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About the Contributor

John Riley

John Riley

A native Delawarean, John Riley is retired and lives in Greenville. In addition to grandchildren and golf he pursues a passion for writing and military history.

6 Comments

  • John….you are blessed indeed to have such wonderful memories of The Man that meant so much to the world of Golf …and to millions of golfers around the world….a true ambassador of the game.

  • John, what a great article. You captured his legacy beautifully. What an honor to be mentioned in an article with Arnie. I am sure Ed is thrilled also.

  • John, absolutely incredible piece. Outstanding, amazing!! We all got a little closer to Arnie, because of Howdy.

  • Mr. John, thanks for sending this to me. I look forward to reading what you write. You have lived and continue to live a remarkable life. I look forward to seeing you so we can talk on many subjects.

  • What a great article John. I remember meeting Arnold at the tournament in 1985, and still have the picture with Arnold. I was not aware of his relationship with Howdy Giles. The golf world has lost a good person and great player!! He will be missed!

  • What am awesome tribute and remembrance of incredible people that shared a very special relationship. Arnold Palmer was a once in a lifetime type of guy. Although he was bigger than life he was never too big for his fans or those in need. Today’s athletes can learn much from these fine men. cya soon Howdy